Citizens Push Further Moves To Regulate Short Term Rental Units

The ongoing effort at intensifying the regulation of short term rentals in several geographically diverse places around 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County progressed last week as both Big Bear Lake and Twentynine Palms took fitful steps toward revamping or creating limitations on properties used by vacationers.
In recent years, those who permanently live in proximity to cabins, rooms, units and even trailers that are made available for people to live in for relatively short and in some cases longer periods at popular vacation spots in mountain and desert locales as well as on the shores of lakes or the Colorado River have grown increasingly vocal in complaining about their transitory nearby residents. On occasion, especially when alcohol or recreational drugs are involved, the behavior of some of those vacationers is not as civil as their temporary neighbors would prefer them to be. In some cases, quarters that are intended for a few people or a family or two is called upon to accommodate several dozen. That brings with it issues such as noise, overburdened parking space and compliance with rudimentary laws. On rare occasions, with no warning a rave-like event manifests in a place ill-suited for it, and things can quickly rage out of hand.
In particular, the unincorporated communities of Mt. Baldy, Joshua Tree, Wrightwood, Crestline, Cedarpines Park, Lake Gregory, Lake Arrowhead, Blue Jay, Valley of Enchantment, Cedar Glen, Sky Forest, Twin Peaks, Arrow Bear, Big Bear City, Angeles Oaks, Forest Falls, Running Springs and Green Valley Lake have experienced such social disruptions, as have the three incorporated municipalities of Big Bear Lake, Yucca Valley, and Twentynine Palms.
In 2017, county government made a concerted effort to deal with the matter in the mountain communities. In 2019, the county moved to take up the issue directly and generally, not just in the mountains, but in desert communities, in particular ones along the Colorado River as well as those near, in and around Joshua Tree National Park, which includes Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. The county imposed on short-term rentals renter identification/registration and on-site parking requirements, exterior and interior maintenance standards, a mandate that evacuation maps on all doors within each unit be posted and fines of $100 on the rental units’ owners for a first offense, a $200 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for a third, as well as like penalties for disturbances at the units. In 2021, after those earlier efforts proved less than fully effective, the county upped its fines to more draconian terms, those being that offenses were no longer considered administrative but criminal, subject to penalties of $1,000 for the first offense, $2,000 for the second offense and $5,000 for the third offense falling within a 12-month period. Operating a short-term rental unit without a permit was subject to the same $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000 fines per violation per day.
In Yucca Valley, where residents endured problems brought on by insensitive short term visitors, the town government in 2017 approved an ordinance that imposes on the owners of residences rented out as vacation homes a requirement that they apply for a $270 permit every two years and pay the same taxes imposed on hotels. Permit fees are used to fund the cost of the town hiring a private company to monitor the properties, enforce codes and deal with complaints relating to the properties emanating from neighbors.
The most intensive controversy over short term rentals and the call for their regulation is in Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino County’s second smallest city populationwise at 5,338 and third smallest geographically at 6.42 square miles. As a recreational and vacation mecca, Big Bear Lake attracts thousands of short term occupants annually, with arrivals coming in during all four seasons of the year. Consequently, a substantial number of property owners in Big Bear Lake, some who do not actually reside there, derive considerable income from catering to these short term residents. They are less in favor of the city government imposing regulations on the transient population than are the homeowners in the city who must live with a constant influx of highly unpredictable temporary neighbors of variable levels of gentility. The Big Bear Lake City Council has thus found itself caught between on one side the full-time residents who want tough restrictions imposed on rental units and on the other side the often-absentee landlords who are making a substantial amount of money by renting their properties on a temporary basis and want nothing in place that will discourage renters from coming to Big Bear Lake.
The city council, a majority of which has been more responsive to the wealthier absentee landlords, responded by initiating a regulatory regime that involves licensing and fines on cabin owners on whose properties problems manifest, with the potential for revocation of those licenses if the nuisances persist on a given property. A contingent of city residents who did not believe that City Hall had gone far enough formed on April 25, 2021 a group intended to lobby for more vigorous regulation. Its members made a concerted call for a cap on vacation rentals and they are pushing the city to increase the transitory occupancy tax – i.e. the city’s bed tax or hotel tax – to be upped from 8 percent to 12 percent, based on their argument that 35 percent of the calls for service from the fire department or sheriff’s department involve short term rental properties and/or visitors to the city. In August 2021, the Big Bear Lake City Council voted 4-to-1 against a proposed cap on vacation rental permits. The controlling council majority members said they want to give the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those do not achieve the desired results, they said they might then put more restrictive measures into place.
On October 21, 2021, the group animated about the issue of vacation rentals changed its name to Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. Thereafter, it embarked on an effort to bypass the city council and set about gathering signatures on a petition to place on the October 2022 ballot an initiative calling for a limit on the number of vacation rentals in the city. In that same election, three positions on the Big Bear Lake City Council are up for election.
In the meantime, a contingent of residents is seeking to recall City Councilman Alan Lee. Lee, who has emphasized cases where locals have been victimized by visitors, including incidents of vandalism, theft and violence, is the lone champion of Big Bear Lake’s residents seeking to intensify restrictions on short-term rental units on the council, as the other four council members have sided with the absentee landlords on this issue. The group seeking Lee’s ouster has obtained 370 signatures on its petition. Under California law, a recall petition drive to succeed must be signed by 25 percent of the number of voters who voted in the previous gubernatorial election. While neither the Big Bear Lake City Clerk nor the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office this week could say with precision how many voters in Lee’s District 1 voted in the 2018 election, there were a total of 475 voters in District 1 who came to the polls or submitted mail ballots in 2020. Using that as a guidepost, it would appear that those seeking to force a recall of Lee have likely met their burden to put the matter before the city’s voters.
Thus, the battleground between the pro-vacation rental business/tourist industry element of the Big Bear community and its full-time residents has been clearly demarked, such that the November election will have four races in which the city’s two opposite contingents – those supporting short term rental unit limitations and Lee on one side and those opposing further vacation unit limitations and supporting council incumbents Mayor Rick Herrick, Councilman Randall Putz and Councilwoman Perri Melnick on the other – are starkly apparent.
In Twentyine Palms, the planning commission for the last several months has taken up the issue of updating the municipal code relating to vacation home rentals in the 28,065-population city. Based on the flow of discussion and attitudes of the city’s five planning commissioners, it appears that there is some will to harden the city’s stance with regard to the influx of short-duration residents, although no precise consensus on numbers could be formed. Commissioners Leslie Paahana, Jason Dickson and Max Walker are all on board with capping the number of vacation rentals the city will allow and seem comfortable limiting that number to somewhere near one-tenth of the 5,797 houses in the city. Commissioner Jim Krushat entertains the concept of limiting the rentals, but expressed a preference for a limitation closer to 20 percent. Commissioner Greg Mendoza has said he does not think it is the city’s place to engage in such regulation and that the free market should determine who will rent short term or long term. Meanwhile, large numbers of residents have lobbied for a 5 percent cap.
Chairwoman Paahana at a March 1 meeting pushed for a cap of 10 percent, which would have levied a restriction of 578 vacation units. Krushat countered with a 19 percent proposal, or 1,101. At that point, the council majority indicated it would likely recommend a compromise of 12 percent, or 696. They postponed, however, making a final recommendation.
They were scheduled to meet again on April 6. The meeting was held, but Pahaana and Dickson were absent. At one point during the discussion, concern was expressed that limiting vacation rentals would result in an escalation of rental rates, which might redound to the detriment of long-term renters in the city. As Walker was the only advocate of the 12 percent compromise present, the trio of Walker, Krushat and Mendoza were unable to come to a consensus. Accordingly, the Twentynine Palms City Council will take up the issue on May 10 without a recommendation from the planning commission.
-Mark Gutglueck

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